Paul’s Mars Hill Appeal
When Paul spoke the gospel to these religious pagans in Athens on Mars Hill for the first time he didn’t wait to become friends first to “share his beliefs.” This is an absurd method to abide by. He took the time to explain their idolatry and the truth. No one knows how many chances they will get to speak to an unbeliever, so you speak as if it is your only time. You cannot be called an evangelist if your purpose is not to first bring the gospel but instead to be friends and then give the gospel. This is not how the apostles conducted their evangelism, nor how they taught the church to. This does not mean we ignore developing friendships, but to grow in a relationship takes time and time is not something that we all have. Friendships are not a necessity to speak the gospel message. It wasn’t to Peter in Acts 2 and it was not to Paul on his missionary journeys.
There are those today who use Acts 17 , Paul's Mars Hill encounter with the Greek philosophers to prove that truth is found elsewhere, and the Bible is not the only place that contains spiritual truth. Lets examine the Scripture carefully and the other poets he quotes to learn the truth of this matter.
Acts 17:16-21: “Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols. 17 Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there. 18 Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods, “ because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection. 19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak? 20 For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean.” 21 For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.
Paul looked at the surroundings he was in and all he saw was false worship. Athens was famous for their temples that were works of art. There was no other place on earth at the time where so many idols were exhibited. Idolatry was the very thing that had God punish Israel over and over again. He went to his brethren first as his policy was in every city (Acts 17:1-2). He reasoned with them by engaging in an argument from what the Scriptures teach. He also discussed openly the things of God with those who were not Jewish. He did not start with making similarities with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers; he started with teaching them of the death and resurrection of the Messiah. He did not begin with what they had but what they did not have. It was then that they identified him as one speaking about foreign gods v.18, something they have never heard of before. They prided themselves on being hip to the newest philosophy. Their interest perked, they were intrigued by Paul’s message and were eager to hear the latest teaching so they brought him to explain to others this new teaching.
The Epicureans, named after their founder Epicurus (who lived in 341-270 B.C.), they believed the chief end of living was pleasure. They believed in numerous gods who had no influence over the affairs of man and did not believe in the immortality of the soul.
Paul’s audience was very hard to preach to, the Epicureans believed everything evolved they did not have a concept of creation. The Epicurians believed that the world was made accidentally by atoms which have been in perpetual motion from the beginning had brought this form. Aristotle's school held “that the world was from eternity, and every thing always was from eternity, and every thing always was what now it is” (from Matthew Henry's Commentary).
The Stoics, founded by Zeno (c. 300 B.C.), believed that God was the world's soul which indwelt all things, God was in all men, all men were brothers. That living in harmony with nature brought happiness. Many Stoics were men of high moral principle, and that human affairs were governed by fate.
Acts 17: 22: “Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; 23 for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: 24 God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. 25 Nor is He worshiped with men's hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. 26 And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, 27 so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28 for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, 'For we are also His offspring.' 29 “Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man's devising. 30 Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, 31 because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” 32 And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, “We will hear you again on this matter.” 33 So Paul departed from among them. 34 However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.”
We have known this as Paul’s appeal to the philosophers on Mars’ Hill. Paul, though being courteous, does not compromise his message. He started with the idols as false religious worship. Their zealousness in their devotion was superstitious, and Paul points out that they even erected an idol to a god they do not know. Paul now becomes philosopher to them instead of a theologian, as he would be with the Jews who have the ordinances of God. He appeals to their conscience and reveals to them a knowledge of the true and living God, who alone is to be the object of their adulation. He lays a foundation, instructing them in the primary principle of all religion, that there is only one God.
Paul says elsewhere in 1 Cor. 8:4-5: “we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one.” To the believers he instructs in1 Cor. 10:19-20: “What am I saying then? That an idol is anything, or what is offered to idols is anything? Rather, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons.” Paul was considerate to their ignorance in that he did not call their idols demonic. However with these pagan philosophers he takes a different tack. He tells them we are created beings countering the Greek thought that men were gods.Paul defined God in v.24.Some make a big deal out of the Greek word theos being used. Paul used the common word for God (theos) he did not use any of their gods names. The focus is on an unknown god whom they were treating as all the rest. The word God is a generic word; it is not a name but a title. When he used theos, they understood what he meant, that his God (theos) was not any of theirs.
The Epicureans held that the view that the world was not made by God. In v: 24 Paul explains as a God who made the world and all things. That this God could not be confined within temples made with hands, as he was the Lord who governs both heaven and earth.He built a foundation first to prove this by going back.
Therefore, the gods whom they worshipped in their temples was not the true God. Paul’s basis was the Old Testament Isa. 66:1-2: “Thus says the LORD: “Heaven is My throne, And earth is My footstool. Where is the house that you will build Me? And where is the place of My rest? For all those things My hand has made, And all those things exist,” Says the LORD.
He infers the absurdity of their idolatry, he is making feel foolish by quoting their own poet. In v.25 he tells them God does not need anything from man, in fact we need him, as he is the giver of life. God gives life, he is the fountain of all he gives breath, to both the animal and men. Paul also teaches that divine worship is not enacted and established for GOD, but for the use of his creatures: he needs nothing that man can give him; for man only has what he received from the hand of his Maker. Therefore what they have made for God cannot be a fair or accurate representation of him.
V.26 He hath made of one blood (meaning Adam) all nations of men. Paul’s emphasis is to show our common origin and the right way. This same thought that appears in Acts 14:17 in the speech to the Greeks at Lystra. Paul is telling them that God is in control not man. Certainly these men being knowledgeable on all the beliefs of their day would have heard about the Hebrews belief of Genesis or the flood.
V.27 The Gentiles were not familiar with God and His ways and needed a revelation, until then they grope after God. The true God is Spirit, therefore he is not an idol and he is closer than they think. In one sense he is farther off from us because he is the creator of all yet in another sense as Spirit he is closer. Therefore he is saying they do not know of this God he is speaking of though he may be revealed to them if they seek him.
Paul quotes Isaiah 65:1 in Rom 10:20 But Isaiah is very bold and says: “I was found by those who did not seek Me; I was made manifest to those who did not ask for Me.” Paul’s giving them a principle that God has made known for Jeremiah also writes “And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart” (29:13). It is in this attitude he appealed to the philosophers on Mars Hill.
V.28 for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, 'For we are also His offspring.'
They fashioned a tomb for you, O holy and high one—The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies! But you are not dead; you live and abide forever, For in you we live and move and have our being. (poem Cretica written by Epimenides (ca. 600 BCE)
In other words we should not think of God as ordinary man, He cannot die like men. We are dependent on him for our life. We need to understand his speaking to philosophers he was trying to give them the meaning of their poets saying.
Aratus was a Greek poet, a Cilician who was one of Paul's own countrymen about 275 years before Christ. Paul was well acquainted with his and other writings because of where he was brought up. Aratus wrote a poem called Phaenomena, the words are quoted by Paul. The sentiment is found in several others, being very common among the enlightened philosophers of the day. By saying your own poets, he does not mean poets born at Athens, but merely Grecian poets, Aratus and Cleanthus being chief in whose Hymn to Jupiter the same words occur.
“With Jove we must begin; nor from him rove; Him always praise, for all is full of Jove! He fills all places where mankind resort, The wide-spread sea, with every shelt'ring port. Jove's presence fills all space, upholds this ball; All need his aid; his power sustains us all.For we his offspring are; and he in love Points out to man his labour from above: Where signs unerring show when best the soil, By well-timed culture, shall repay our toil, etc.
It is found also (nearly as here) in a religious hymn of Cleanthes of Troas, a contemporary of Aratus”(from Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary).
Plautus (5,4,14): “O Jupiter, who dost cherish and nourish the race of man; by whom we live, and with whom is the hope of the life of all men” (Kuinoel). It does not appear, however, that Paul designed this as a quotation; yet he doubtless intended to state a sentiment with which they were familiar, and with which they would agree (from Barnes' Notes).
Cilician poet Aratus (315-240 BCE): “It is with Zeus that every one of us in every way has to do, for we are also his offspring” (Phaenonlena 5).
Paul used another pagan source to confirm the truth of the Bible, not the reverse, he was showing them how even their own poets had some knowledge (though corrupted) of the God he is speaking to them of that they do not know. If he was saying their poet spoke truth then he would be endorsing Zeus a false god, the very thing he was trying to prove to them.
V.28 For in him we live, and move, and have our being. He is the very source of our existence: the principle of life comes from him: What Paul did not mean is that we are all part of God or God is part of us. What he quoted was directly opposing the views of the Epicureans. Here Paul is citing poets who they respected and brilliantly turned it on their idolatry they now practiced. Paul has made a case that as men we have a necessary dependence on this God they do not know nor see. He inserted their own poet’s statements as an added incentive to consider that their worship was wrong. He juxtaposed what was said the past for what is being practiced in the present.
If Paul meant they we actually God's offspring He would be agreeing with the gods of Greek philosophy. He did not!
This is poetry he quoted, not doctrine, nor Scripture. Paul meant that all men are God's offspring in the sense that they are His creatures and dependent on Him for life. There is no Biblical teaching of the universal fatherhood of God and a brotherhood of all men (John 1:12; Paul teaches we must be adopted in God’s family in the book of Ephesians).
This is certainly is not his main point to make a bridge to them. If Paul wanted to build a bridge he certainly did not employ the new evangelistic ways we are seeing today. He told them what most would avoid. Paul was not making a bridge to their culture but to people who had various false beliefs on God and life. He uses their poets point for a similarity of what he is conveying that is wrong, not what is right. Paul is using their own poet against their idolatry. He is not condoning their poet’s words as truth equal with the Bible's revelation but dismantled their own view by using it as a similar point to present the Bible's revelation.
V.29Paul has taken one point of similarity and dismantled their mindset by concentrating on the unknown God the real one that they do not know. So there was no bridging to what they believe but what they don’t believe or know. Because of what Paul has presented to counter their idolatry he brings his argument to a conclusion that “we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's devising.” It is absurd to suppose that the original source of our existence can be like gold, and silver, and stone, inanimate objects. We are living and intelligent beings; our nature is more excellent than the works of mans hands, since we are like him formed by God.
V.30 Paul’s invitation is for them to repent, this shows that he is not approving of anything they are doing. God is the creator of men, but to identify God with something man has made is ignorance (Rom. 1:22-23). He indicts them calling these wise philosophers ignorant was a strong accusation. In times past God has overlooked this blindness but no longer. He commands men everywhere to repent, not just a message for the Greeks but for all people in every nation. It is at this point he goes back to the Bible and preaches a righteous judgment coming by Christ who is the only man that was raised from the dead to eternal life.
V.32 some mocked, some said we will hear him later on what he spoke and some went with him. He had to change the peoples belief system to bring them up to date with Christ. Their belief system was challenged first.The message of the Jesus Christ goes out with only a few, not many responding.
“The cross was foolishness” to the Greeks, they had no background to this concept, especially the dead living again.Telling people only the good news of Jesus and not what is wrong with their religion or belief system rarely works. The apostles did not do this, and this was not what Paul did at Mars Hill despite that many use it as an example of making bridges. Methods of evangelism that don’t work are those that do not deal with the issue of sin that a culture has ingrained in its society and God’s command to repent. You can’t just preach the gospel if the people don’t understand the language you are using. If they don’t understand the terminology how can they understand the solution? The bad news from Genesis needs to be presented first before the good news from the New Testament can be explained, just as Paul did in principle to the Greek philosophers. Paul started with the Bibles revelation and ended with the Bible's revelation.
Humanism is the religion of our culture; they explain everything without God. Our culture is permeated with philosophies. We live in Greek culture today with evolution, pan-spermea and various other concepts running rampant.
Instead of doing real evangelism it has become the opposite in intent. Today we have a reverse of Mars Hill. Where instead of some Christians declaring the true God among the false we have them accepting the false gods as true ones. They embrace the different religious beliefs as valid in the past. Within this unison stands a God that is still unknown to them. It is up to us to proclaim Jesus the Only Messiah to them.
Our foundation in America is no longer based on the Bible; if the foundations are destroyed what will the righteous do? We need to rebuild the foundations. It starts with Genesis and the basics of sin and the history of man so that the cross can be understood by a culture that has forgotten God.